Title: The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul
Author: Eleanor Herman
Genre: historical nonfiction
My rating: 4/5 stars
A gossip column meets my high school AP European History textbook (McKay, I’ll never forget you!) in this highly entertaining, if occasionally pedantic, read. Think that combination sounds fascinating? Horrifying? Impossibly bizarre? The Royal Art of Poison is all of the above, and you should keep reading.
Now, those who know me can attest to the fact that I read a little bit of everything, but this book was outside of even my usual territory, and that’s saying something. It is precisely what its cover advertises: an examination of the storied history between the European monarchy and poison of all sorts. Tl;dr Europeans loved poisoning each other, especially in the 16th-18th centuries, but they also loved accusing each other of poison while inadvertently poisoning themselves.
Eleanor Herman divides her book into three sections.
In the first, she covers various ways in which European nobles would poison and make themselves sick without even knowing it. Among other things, cosmetics and medicines often contained lead, arsenic, and mercury; people didn’t believe that bacteria were a real thing; and it was considered a good practice to split a bird in half and put it on the head or feet of a sick person to “draw out ill humors.” Though the number of “wtf” moments in this section is high, and Herman does a good job of trying to avoid sounding like an info-dump, after a while it does start to sound like hearing the same thing over and over again. But it is an excellent and necessary prelude to part two.
In the second, she dashes through 17 case studies of historical poisonings or accusations of poison. Combining the historical context of the alleged attempts with both contemporary and modern-day postmortems, sometimes including chemical analysis of human remains, she delivers new insight and possible conclusions as to what really happened (see the end of this review for a body count). This was the best part of the book by far, swirling with rumors and commentary from nobles associated with the situation. Chapters were brief but not rushed, and the range of names–from lesser-known people like Agnes Sorel to famous kings and even Mozart–is impressive beyond a doubt.
In the third, she takes poisoning to the modern era. This is where the book really faltered, and it’s the biggest reason for my four-star rating. Honestly, I almost skipped this section halfway through, which is saying something, since it’s also the shortest section of the book. Focusing primarily on Russia, Herman rattles off in rapid succession all sorts of poisonings from within the past hundred years or so, emphasizing that we don’t really get false accusations of poison anymore because autopsies better detect it. It’s not that the stories aren’t interesting, but this section is devoid of the personality and story-like qualities that brought the earlier case studies to life, which causes it to really drag.
Couple other random notes:
– There are a few pages at the end that describe the exact effects of all poisons mentioned in the book, and a “hall of fame” for poisons, with such dubious honors as Least Painful, Most Painful, and Fastest Acting. It’s an entertaining bit, but I’m not entirely sure why it’s at the very end.
– Herman uses the phrase “we can imagine” a lot. Like, a lot. It started to bug me after a while, but that’s not a huge deal.
– IMPORTANT: THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. There is blood and gore, there are bugs and viruses, boils and bruises and body parts turning unnatural colors. It’s fun, but it’s very gross fun. Consider yourself warned.
And now, what you’ve all been waiting for: the final body count from the case studies. (If you don’t want spoilers, just skip the next few lines and go to the next bolded part.)
Deliberate poisoning – 3
Accidental poisoning – 2
Poisoning, source/motive unclear – 2
Natural causes/illness – 10*
*Note that one of the ones who died of natural causes did have someone attempting to poison her, but those attempts were unsuccessful.
All in all, not perfect, but an enjoyably weird read that will definitely make you think twice about wanting to live as a king/princess/court musician back in the day.
Note: I actually wrote a version of this review on Goodreads a while ago, but I recently recommended the book to someone and thought it might be a good one to polish up and then add to the blog!